Do You Believe Addiction Is a Disease?

I suspect nearly every person who is reading these words has been touched by addiction and pondered whether addiction is a disease or not. Some believe it is. Others think it’s a matter of self-discipline. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s abrupt death rocked the foundation of the addiction community by underscoring the stunning realization that relapse can happen to the brightest of us and at any point of recovery. The fact PSH had every reason not to use drugs reinforces my belief that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing.

Maybe you lived with an alcoholic mother or father growing up. Perhaps your brother is a wake-and-bake marijuana smoker. You recall your binge-drinking bunkmate having another black-out which you all shrugged off as yet another crazy night in college. There’s a friend of yours who always seems to get a little too drunk a little too frequently. The co-worker who is constantly chiding the crew to go to happy hour that lasts until 9:00. But you drink too. You may wonder if you yourself have a problem when you wake up completely unmotivated with yet another prescription drug hang-over. It’s not addiction. Your knee really hurt. You fought with your husband. You had a cocktail to unwind. Drugs of choice take many forms: cocaine, oxycontin, food, weed, nicotine, methamphetamines, alcohol, gambling, shopping, working, sex, just to name a few.

addiction is a disease

Addiction runs in my family, and it is often not pretty.

I’ve dealt with addiction in many different ways over the years with the different addicts in my life. I have ignored it, obsessed about it, denied it, gotten really fucking mad about it, become resolute, sympathized, hidden it, empathized, tried to help, broadcast it, bargained, accepted it, gave ultimatums, cried amidst the chaos, divorced myself from it. One thing I have never done is to understand it, despite first-hand observation, researching and reading about addiction for years. I thought I was enlightened about addiction, having devoted so much energy to it over the course of my life. Turns out we all have a lot more to learn.

I read an incredibly insightful book about addiction recently that has burned an imprint in my brain. I find myself thinking of it often and I wanted to bring it to your attention. I can’t say enough good things about David Sheff’s Clean, published a year ago.

addiction is a disease

A few quotes from the book that really resonated with me:

“Using drugs or not isn’t about willpower or character. Most problematic drug use is related to stress, trauma, genetic predisposition, mild or serious mental illness, use at an early age or some combination thereof.”

“Addicts aren’t morally bereft. They’re ill. Addiction is a disease with a neurologic basis- a mental illness.”

“Most drug use is about coping with life, not about the drugs.” Do you think at the end of a harrowing day at the office or wrangling children that you deserve a drink to relax? That’s about dealing with stress. It’s not about how much you love the taste of wine.

Who is the addict in your life? What are you doing to cope with him or her?